The Depths of the Uncanny Valley

GameSpot investigates how video games really impact our lives--how they are changing our culture, what they're doing to our brains, and what this all means for people who play video games.

346 Comments
By Carrie Gouskos- posted July 8, 2006

No Caption Providedou play video games, but do you have any idea how those video games are affecting you? They do, whether it's the subconscious way in which violence triggers chemicals in your brain, or your automatic repulsion at a game character that doesn't look quite human. With these ongoing reports, GameSpot will investigate how video games really impact our lives--how they are changing our culture, what they're doing to our brains, and what this all means for people who play video games.

Becoming uncanny

Image of the Uncanny Valley, courtesy of Karl MacDorman
Image of the Uncanny Valley, courtesy of Karl MacDorman

In 1970, roboticist Masahiro Mori published an article in the Japanese magazine Energy titled "Bukimi No Tani" (English translation: "The Uncanny Valley") detailing an observation that he had made from his experience working with humanlike robots. Mori noted that the more closely robots approximated human appearance and behavior, the more familiar they seemed to a human observer, until a point at which they resembled humans closely, but not perfectly. At this point, people would begin to react negatively to robots, citing feelings of eeriness or discomfort about their appearance. He called it "the uncanny valley," because of the way a graph depicting the correlation between familiarity and human likeness would dip suddenly and drastically, just before reaching perfect mimicry of the human appearance.

As technology improves and entertainment media such as movies and video games are able to more closely approximate realism, humanoid characters get dangerously close to what Mori described. For example, take a look at some of the most negative reviews that the motion picture The Polar Express received. The film attempted to create a highly realistic look through computer-generated imagery (CGI), but missed a few key points, such as the depiction of the characters' eyes and skin, which made them seem more doll-like than human, causing an involuntary repulsion among viewers.

So how does the uncanny valley work? Is it science? What are the factors that contribute to uncanniness--this unusual quality of realistic-looking characters that can seem so discomforting when we see them in action? Mori's observation may have opened up the discussion about this concept, but it left most of these questions unanswered. Only recently have scientists and roboticists begun to uncover the methodology and reasoning behind the uncanny valley, and in turn, how we can circumvent it.

Getting into the uncanny valley

"If you are interacting with an android and the timing of its speech and gestures is off, this will be uncanny for a different reason than if its eyes are too far apart." - Dr. Karl MacDorman, School of Informatics at Indiana University

Karl MacDorman is an associate professor in the human-computer interaction program at the School of Informatics at Indiana University and has been working with the uncanny valley hypothesis, using human participants, for the past year. In his own research on the subject, MacDorman has found scientific support for the hypothesis, which has revealed, among other things, that there are too many contributing factors for it to be narrowed down to a single theory. "If you are interacting with an android and the timing of its speech and gestures is off, this will be uncanny for a different reason than if its eyes are too far apart. This in turn is uncanny for a different reason than if part of its body is open, exposing wires and motors. I have identified about 10 possible causes for the uncanny valley, and I am sure there are many more."

The sheer number of factors and the precision of detail required to perfectly approximate humans makes the process seem extraordinarily daunting, though MacDorman believes that the most difficult of these problems is not in creating proportionately accurate humans, but in the timing and the interactivity of character movement: "I suspect the hard part will not be in finding the right physical proportions, but making the movements seem natural and well-timed, especially during interaction." This presents an extraordinarily poignant problem for video games, in which the player has control over the characters for the majority of the time. The characters must not only look realistic and animate accurately, but they must also react to control with perfect timing.

What makes this uncanny?

This character may look realistic, but there are many factors which make her also seem uncanny.
This character may look realistic, but there are many factors which make her also seem uncanny.

Of course, there are still plenty of problems within controlled situations. One such example of this can be seen in developer Quantic Dream's recent tech demo for its game Heavy Rain (working title), which has come under fire for uncanniness since it was first revealed at E3 2006. The trailer, which depicts an extremely realistic female character performing a monologue for the camera, is technologically impressive, yet many people have responded to it in a negative way, stating that there's something about it that is unsettling.

MacDorman lists several factors behind what makes the principal character of the video, Mary Smith, seem unnatural, although he recognizes that the video displays great technique nonetheless. "Presumably to enhance realism or reduce calculation, the game designers or animators exaggerate the depth of field, so that Mary's face is rendered in focus, but her hair and neck are out of focus and blurry. In addition, there is sometimes a lack of synchronization with her speech and lip movements, which is very disturbing to people. People 'hear' with their eyes as well as their ears. By this, I mean that if you play an identical sound while looking at a person's lips, the lip movements can cause you to hear the sound differently." He further cites her pale complexion and the fact that she behaves as a sociopath as reasons that most people will have trouble relating to her. "In general, sociopaths tend to seem odder than ordinary people--not only in their behavior, but in their facial asymmetries, which reflect developmental disorders--as anyone can tell by surfing Web sites that list photographs of known sexual offenders." This list of factors shows the breadth and depth of the uncanny valley problem, in that it goes far beyond what seems obvious (something like the lip synching) and into the more nuanced (the difference of the face structure of sociopaths).

"And as the animators make these characters more realistic, they have already become used to their less realistic predecessors. So they never get to look at their own creations with fresh eyes." - Dr. Karl MacDorman, School of Informatics at Indiana University

Posing an even deeper problem for developers, MacDorman believes that animators working from inception to completion will have difficulty witnessing uncanniness in their own projects. "They build up characters that start off looking not particularly realistic and, therefore, not particularly uncanny. And as the animators make these characters more realistic, they have already become used to their less realistic predecessors. So they never get to look at their own creations with fresh eyes. As artists, animators must always rely on their own sense of aesthetics. The problem is that they have lost what is 'common sense' to the rest of us." According to Elspeth Tory, the Animation Project Manager on Ubisoft's upcoming game Assassin's Creed, that's why it's absolutely critical that animators not work on their games in isolation. "You certainly start to get used to a character after a while and can occasionally lose a bit of the objectivity that you had at the beginning of the process. Getting feedback from others, especially the artistic director for animation, is an essential part of the pipeline in order to maintain a standard of believability."

Dealing with uncanniness

But it takes more than just feedback to get past the uncanny valley. Animators must deal with the phenomenon head-on, working to combat it from the beginning, not only by creating realistic-looking humans and animating them well, but also by making sure that the level of realism present is both believable and fun. Tory cites the uncanny valley as a hurdle in achieving realism with Assassin's Creed but distinguishes reality from believability, which is an equally if not more important goal. "Animating something that's believable gives you a bit of room for texturing a movement than simply making something that's realistic. A character that's realistic will seem to have ticked off a checklist of human characteristics, but a believable one will display nuances and subtleties that make them seem unique and alive." Tory notes that weight and timing are some of the most important aspects that contribute to a character's believability, and that hands are the most difficult part of the human body to animate.

Ubisoft animators aim for both believability and realism in games like Assassin's Creed.
Ubisoft animators aim for both believability and realism in games like Assassin's Creed.

Ubisoft has a good track record for believability, particularly with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which was critically lauded for its excellence in animation. Alex Drouin, the Animation Artistic Director on both Sands of Time and Assassin's Creed, reveals some of the tricks they used to achieve such a full range of fluid animations. "Everything was hand animated in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. We used a lot of 'blending' of animations to get specific effects and a wider range of possibilities, and different kinds of interpolations to fluidly link different moves together. We used the same tools for Assassin's Creed but we added full body IK (inverse kinematics) and a rag doll tool." These tools helped the Ubisoft animators create a game that looked both believable and realistic, without getting bogged down in the kind of realism that would make the game unenjoyable. Focusing on believability helped them to achieve their animation goals with Sands of Time, and the result was a very attractive and well-animated game.

Out of the valley...for good?

"We've put a lot more animation files in the game... More than anything I've seen before." - Alex Drouin, Animation Artistic Director on Assassin's Creed

So how does the future of research and technology help to resolve the problems of the uncanny valley once and for all? MacDorman hope his research will lay the groundwork for combating the uncanny valley, by narrowing down all of the factors that contribute to it and giving us a better understanding of all of the nuances that control our perception of a realistic human. "We know that the human brain doesn't even register many kinds of gaps in visual information. We don't notice that we have a blind spot. We don't notice when we blink. We don't notice floaters, particles of dust moving on the cornea. There would be no point in filling in details that we don't notice. Therefore, we need to identify what we do notice, and to fix that part, and this may not so much require new technologies as an improved application of existing technologies." But having new technology will help developers to work with our limited knowledge of these factors in the short term. Drouin says that the increased power of the PlayStation 3 has helped them to create more diversity in the Assassin's Creed character animations, adding to the believability of the game. "We've put a lot more animation files in the game... More than anything I've seen before. Therefore, variety is going to help us re-create a living and breathing world because our eyes are not used to seeing patterns in real-life movements." It is the combination of these two factors, research and technology, that, when applied correctly, will begin to strip away the problem of the uncanny valley for good.

So where does this all leave us? With a lot of work to do, it seems, but MacDorman's view is optimistic. "It is something that can be overcome through good design. By manipulating the many factors that influence whether a robot or game character is familiar or eerie, we can design around the uncanny valley for any degree of human likeness. As we come to better understand the norms of human interaction, I believe our androids will overcome the uncanny valley." Developers are showing that they are able to work around the problems that the uncanny valley presents, but as games get more and more complex, there is always more work to do. Getting more involved with robotics research, using advanced technology better, and continuing to animate the details that we notice over those that we don't will all contribute to a positive future for video game animation. In the end, though, it seems as though they've got a good grasp of what really matters. Says Drouin: "So is our game completely realistic? NO WAY... It's realistically fun!"

Previously: Empathy and Conditioning Violence

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Wh0careZ

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Edited By Wh0careZ

The Heavy Rain video unnerved me as well... I think it's her mouth. Cos when she started to talk, her teeth just kind of 'burst' out. It's kind of weird. The first time she opened her mouth, it really WAS kind of 'uncanny'... but then after 2 minutes I got used to it. I guess that's what'll happen to video games...we'll just have to get used to the uncanniness, because as the 'realism' gets more... uhhh... realistic, the 'uncanny' factor will only increase. Okay... I've started rambling now. Oh yeah...one more thing. I think the people who get influenced by video games (*cough* GTA *cough*)are a bit touched in the head...or maybe they just don't have a life. Seriously... people have to realize that underneath all those blurry textures and the fancy lighting is just a load of wireframes and numbers.

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Irongrinder1

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Edited By Irongrinder1

The Heavy Rain comment was spot on, I liked the demo, but something was way off indeed. They tried to follow realism to the extreme, but failed at some minor details. The more realistic the rest is, the more apparent the little flaws become.

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montesol

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Edited By montesol

The human mind has evolved to be able to distinguish things in a split second, the most important being other humans. There is a disorder called prosopagnosia which is the inability to recognize human faces. There's a reason I can recognize a friend from two blocks away simply by the way they walk. Our minds are expecting a lot of exact detail to fit the pattern of a human face, or the pattern of physics, and if something is just slightly off, our mind says "wait, something is wrong. This is unusual" and we react primitively. The closer to photorealism that 3D graphics go, the riskier it is that you will pass the boundary where the mind goes from recognizing artifice and being comfortable and you will enter the realm of representation that fires those parts of the mind that are more about survival than luxury. Our mind will look for the cues that prove this is a real scene, and when they aren't there it ceases to be successful, and hence feels almost uncomfortable rather than uncanny. I've have always felt that 2D hand drawn cel animation had more "weight" to the characters because I wasn't expecting them to behave under real physical laws. For me, simply rotoscoping a human being in 2D animation removes all weight from the character and it isn't believable as something from the mind of Tex Avery. That's not to say that there hasn't been progress. Either through me getting accustomed to it or through advances in the physics rendering, I've noticed that quite a bit of 3d animation has developed the nuance, or at least illusion of nuance, that goes to convincing the mind that it is "real".

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jecht290

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Edited By jecht290

Very good read

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ffmusicdj

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Edited By ffmusicdj

I think people got alot more freakes out by Final Fantasy: The spirit within than with the Polar Express. I remember one person actually saying "LOOK AT HOW REAL THEY LOOK WHEN THE CHARACTERS KISS! THATS CREEPY!"

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djpatrickhalo

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Edited By djpatrickhalo

that was a very thought provoking article. i was reading about human like robots in a science mag the other day, and it too made the point about how the more human than human look creeps peeps out. None the less, in video games No matter how good the graphics 360 to ps3... whatever, video games have a long way to go before they can totally achieve that more human than human look that robots can. most of the PS3's super "realistic human" looking graphics are rendered with a computer, and i doubt that the end product will be as good looking as they are trying to say they will be..... i remember in the 80's when 3d rendered stuff in movies like tron was Sooooo realistic.....

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michaelP4

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Edited By michaelP4

Resident Evil 5... :| But, I personally, think it's nothing to be concerned about...

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tuff_gong92

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Edited By tuff_gong92

This is a complicated subject. This seems like the problem that faces (no pun intended) game design in terms of humans and realism vs. believability. Very interesting article.

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thesinginlucas

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Edited By thesinginlucas

I think that the uncanny quality of 'Mary Smith' is amazing. I do agree with the article, in that her neck and body seem out-of-focus, while her face is detailed and in-focus. I noticed, too, that her teeth look a bit unreal. But I love realism in games; it allows the player to be fully immersed in the game. In a horror game, for example, the more realistic everything looks and moves, the more realistic and believable the game experience will be, and all the more horrifying and thrilling, and fun! Mary Smith is unnerving in a creepy, but good way. In fact, her uncanniness reminds me of the girl who played 'Emily' in 'The Exorcism of Emily Rose'.

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GoldenSilence87

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Edited By GoldenSilence87

Great article. We need more stuff like this. I attribute to getting over my chronic shyness entirely to games like EverQuest where being social even behind a computer, is a must

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raithhillwalker

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Edited By raithhillwalker

An interesting article. Reminds me think of the Matrix and some Outer Limits episodes of old. One point I was musing about was, if such a 'valley' exists which developers are going to take advantage of this to create other horror genre games? And will they be more scary or just unnerving?

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WeeWeeJumbo

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Edited By WeeWeeJumbo

I agree with Dr. Mori's general concept, that too much but not enough fidelity when approximating a human form can cause an unsettling feeling, but I also think it's highly subjective; I suppose his graph agrees with that as well. All told it's hard to disagree with much of the article; the Heavy Rain model IS breathtakingly lifelike as real-time renders go, and she can also weird you out. But I wonder how much of that is because of gaps in technical prowess, and how much it's due to the context of the video and her actions therein. Still, it certainly shows both promise and room for improvement.

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Benny_is_here

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Edited By Benny_is_here

Heavy Rain's actor's mouth does not act realistic in my opinion. If it were, maybe I would feel uncanny about her. I doubt it though. I think the uncanny valley (which has been mentioned in almost every TV program or article about robots)applies more to non-gamers. We're used to CGI and all that, and have a better grasp on reality. My mother is often shocked by graphics on my 360. I'm not sure there is such a thing anyway, but that's because I'm yet to see anything close to being uncanny.

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condemned100

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Edited By condemned100

this is a wonderful article good job guys!

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sexydaniboy

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Edited By sexydaniboy

I agree with this article. Videogames helped me in getting better on grammar with games like Zelda and Skies of Arcadia. I have latinamerican friends who learned english by playing RPG games.

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kmwamala

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Edited By kmwamala

All was pretty on mark with the Heavy Rain uncannyness.

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shp2400

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Edited By shp2400

Ugh, that woman is ugly and scary.

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bardock2k2

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Edited By bardock2k2

If chracters become to realistic then some people with low grasps on realality may be sucked into games. I know a few people who stoped basically living and just playing Halo 2 on X-Box live...its really sad

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VampOrdinator

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Edited By VampOrdinator

Another really cool article guys!

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gamepunk86

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Edited By gamepunk86

interesting and i can't believe i read that whole thing. square gets pretty close in thier CG. just look at the animations in Advent Children.

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TomJeffJones

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Edited By TomJeffJones

Modellers and animators would be wise to try and make their characters perfect within project's context, rather than pursuing realism for realism's sake. A character that approaches an anal degree of fidelity just ends up competing with film and reality itself - a competition the digi character is almost always going to lose. Perfect within a project's context has nothing to do with visual fidelity - if you boot up like, grim fandango, it still looks kinda good because it's characters are a perfect fit. Compare to Oblivion - were everyone seems out of place and stilted, more than a little creepy, cause - those characters are bankrupt and artistically homeless.

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gabriel_holguin

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Edited By gabriel_holguin

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

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Ryvvn616

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Edited By Ryvvn616

I find it interesting that this only affects some people not all. I personally loved The Polar Express and thought the doll-like quality, while noticable, added to the theme of the movie rather than ruin it. I also only found the lip synching in the Heavy Rain demo to be a problem but I just thought that was because maybe it was originally recorded in french or something since they are a french studio, guess I was wrong on that. Either way, I don't find this "uncanny valley" disturbing or upsetting at all, to be honest I don't even really notice it. I think I'll find it even more disturbing when robots or characters or anything can mimic human behavior to perfection. I think the main reason I don't find the uncanny valley bothersome is that I always know and am aware that it simply cannot be real to begin with so maybe I'll start feeling something when they actually do become real. great article

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FreakingScreame

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Edited By FreakingScreame

This is a very intesting article. I have noticed these kinds of things before. I think a good exaple of this is in Final Fantasy Spirits Within. The movie was really well animated. But there was something not quite right about it. I'ts hard to say what it is but for many people it was undeniable regardless.

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FreakingScreame

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Edited By FreakingScreame

This is a very intesting article. I have noticed these kinds of things before. I think a good exaple of this is in Final Fantasy Spirits Within. The movie was really well animated. But there was something not quite right about it. I'ts hard to say what it is but for many people it was undeniable regardless.

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False_Reality

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Edited By False_Reality

I'd have to agree with this... that lady did unnerve me and even somewhat scared me. And, really, I don't want my game characters to be too realistic. Maybe that's why I like Sonic the Hedgehog games? Because the characters in those games don't unnerve me at all, and they are talking, walking, animals. :lol:

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ExcAREentric

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Edited By ExcAREentric

I like the fact that its realistically fun, if it wasn't then it might not be fun at all unless it is unrealistically fun.

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Campbell815

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Edited By Campbell815

As long as game developers continue to focus on gameplay as well as graphics, we'll all be in for a treat. However, if they devote all of their time to defeating "uncanniness", then we'll have great-looking characters and nothing fun to do with them...

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DeepCoalMiner

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Edited By DeepCoalMiner

Very interesting. Very good article Gamespot. I have thought of this before, about how unrealistic animations and graphics can sometimes be much more appealing than some cutting edge work. What will happen when we get to the other side of uncanny valley? Will we want to stay there? Will we not want to see the likes of cell shading and anime type graphics anymore?

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erich20012001

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Edited By erich20012001

really this article is right, that lady just freaked me out a little bit when i looked at her

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AL13NK1LL3R

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Edited By AL13NK1LL3R

very good article and i never really care how close the animaion to realisic... i just care the gameplay and multiplayer.. that all it matters to me....

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Edited By com_bun_bun

I agree, if something is trying toi look as realistic as possible then it's easier to notice small things that are off or look strange. If the lip syching is off that's one thing, but if the facial structure is wrong or the hands don't move that can be kind of distracting in a game that is trying to look true to life. That was one of my complaints with oblivion, the facegen software that they were using opened up alot of possibilities, but that meant that is was incredibly easy to make a character look slightly off, and alot of the npcs suffered from having faces that just didn't look right.

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Edited By Shingo

Interesting. I think it will be a while until we can create something looking exactly like in real life, but then again look at the PS3 Tiger Woods tech demo at e3. That was pretty mindblowing. On a side note, what exactly is the definition of 'uncanny'?

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PrivateJessard

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Edited By PrivateJessard

ahhh.

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chilenito3

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Edited By chilenito3

I'm Scared :(

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Nebuzad0

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Edited By Nebuzad0

yes wee need art in video games to fight back against the people (Jack Tompson) saying that all video games are as bloody as GTA...

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Sundance

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Edited By Sundance

Very interesting to read about the science behind this phenomenon. Certainly explains why I prefer the graphics of World of Warcraft (which are not realistic but very believable), to those of Everquest 2 (which are much more realistic but also very "uncanny").

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Edited By Hellraiser3899

right right... uncanny eh? Or mabye thats what they want you to think.

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Quezakolt

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Edited By Quezakolt

i would also like characters not to become too realistic in ALL games.. we need art, funkiness...

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brantothehizzam

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Edited By brantothehizzam

pretty weird not liking a games because they're to realisitc really weird i wonder if any of this has happened to me

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mjdgoldeneye

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Edited By mjdgoldeneye

I believe that a game's graphics should be perfect or far from it. Photo realism is good, but "almost" photo realism is sorta creepy and ruins the situation...

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Naruto

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Edited By Naruto

I don't know if I am the only one, but I don't want characters to become too realistic :|

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gmrscore-addict

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Edited By gmrscore-addict

meh i dont really care how they affect us i turned out great... right (ps. 2nd)

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NaughtyZeut

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Edited By NaughtyZeut

This is something that I had not heard of before. This was an interesting read, and it will be interesting to see how much the current push for realism in games toes the edge of this valley. As for why the Heavy Rain trailer woman was a bit off when I viewed it; her tears are dark all over, even in places mascara wouldn't affect. She doesn't appear to be wearing that much mascara.

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nascarnetboggy

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Edited By nascarnetboggy

Wow, this is a good article!

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mattxavier

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Edited By mattxavier

I agree with some of the aspects of this article, but at the same time I can't help but think that people are more predisposed to judging characters by how close they are to themselves physically or by the physical aspects they share with video game characters.

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